A Stray Thought
By Michael McNichols
Once she’d brought in
the mail, Sheila sliced open her throat with the letter opener. She collapsed onto the living room floor in front of her husband
“NO! NO!” Nick
shouted as he cradled her in his arms. The blood pooling out of her throat stained his white collared shirt and dress pants
After calling 911, he slumped
back onto the couch across from her, barely able to think. When the paramedics burst in through his front door, he simply
stared. The first paramedic, a young girl bent, glanced at him.
She then clamped both her
hands on her throat and started strangling herself. Baring her teeth, she bit at Nick’s hands as he tried to pry hers
off her own neck.
Struggling, they knocked over
the coffee table and hit the floor. Nick yelled at the other paramedic for help. The man nodded, lazily swept the letter opener
up from the floor, still glinting red with Sheila’s blood, and stuck it in his left temple.
Horrified, Nick’s grip
on the girl loosened and she tore away from him. By the time he pinned her down again her face had turned blue.
A serene smile had also crept
across her mouth.
Leaping to his feet, Nick
sprinted out the front door to where the ambulance was parked along the curb. When he ran up to the window, the driver looked
at him, then hit the gas. The ambulance streaked up the street and smashed into a pole.
Nick winced at the loud crash
as the front of the ambulance was caved in. Stumbling back, he asked himself, what’s going on? What do I do? What
do I do?
Looking back at his small,
white house, he realized he couldn’t walk back in and see his dead Sheila sprawled on the floor with two other bodies
He glanced across the street
at Bill’s red brick house. Bill would know what to do. Five years older than Nick, he had always said that Nick was
the younger brother he’d never had. They both even looked alike with short, brownish-blond hair and thin, hollow-cheeked
faces. Nick would just have to find a way to explain everything to him.
Neighbors had already begun
streaming out of their homes to see what the commotion was. Though Nick saw them out of the corners of his eyes, he still
slapped repeatedly at Bill’s doorbell, not caring that he looked like a madman. No one answered and Bill’s car
wasn’t parked in the driveway, but Nick knew he hadn’t left for work yet.
Before Sheila had gone to
grab the mail, Bill had stopped by after his morning jog to tell Nick he’d drive him down to the office today. Bill
wouldn’t have left without him so Nick pounded on the closed garage door. He pressed his ear up against it and heard
a car’s motor running inside.
Nick dashed up to the side
garage door and found it locked. He turned over the welcome mat and swiped up the spare key. After flinging the door open,
thick, gray smoke billowed out. Coughing, covering his mouth and nose, Nick strode inside over to Bill’s blue Sedan.
Through the windshield, he
saw Bill’s head slumped down against his steering wheel. Bill still wore his bright red tracksuit. Though Nick tried
to pull open the car doors, Bill had hammered down every lock.
Nick struggled over to the
corner and hit the automatic garage door opener. The door lifted up and bright daylight filtered in. Staggering outside, Nick
fell to his knees, gasping in the sweet, clean, breathable air.
“Oh God, Bill,”
he muttered, holding his head in his hands. Slowly, he peered up at his street and saw it was empty. But he had seen his neighbors
piling out of their houses after the ambulance had crashed. Besides that, they should be heading out to work this time of
Looking up and down the road,
Nick noticed that the ambulance wreck still sat smoking at the far end. Oddly enough, help hadn’t arrived and no gawkers
crowded around it.
Then he picked up on the low
hum that must have been coming from multiple car engines. He gazed across the street at all the empty driveways and closed
couldn’t have, he thought, not all of them.
He hoped he wasn’t getting
carried away with his imagination, but he no longer had Sheila or Bill to tell him he was thinking crazy.
A loud shot rang out and he
immediately twisted his head to the right. He hurried over to the large, tree-shadowed house the Mallens owned. Staring at
it, he remembered how Mister Mallen had always enjoyed hunting and kept a large gun collection in his study.
Scrabbling noises made him
turn around. Across the street, eight-year old Billy Flanaghan had climbed up to the roof of his house. Racing over, madly
waving his arms, Nick shouted, “No! Billy, don’t!”
Sighing dreamily, Billy leaped
off right onto his parents’ white picket fence. The pointed top drove right up through his chest. His face jolted up
momentarily and looked at Nick with bloodied spittle spewing out of his mouth.
Backing away, Nick tripped
and fell over. He crawled over and vomited into a gutter. He hadn’t even thought about the children living on the block
until now. They should be marching off to school, but who knew what they were doing to themselves?
Tears streaking down his cheeks,
he climbed back up to his feet and threw his back up against a tree, slumping down against it. He rolled up his shirtsleeves
and gingerly traced his fingertips around the old scars ringing his wrists. They had almost faded completely, but he still
remembered digging them in with a razor blade years ago.
Growing up, Nick had felt
like he lived in a mausoleum. His younger brother died in a miscarriage and his ashes were kept in a green urn on top of the
TV. Though she stayed in bed all day herself, his mother insisted all the curtains be drawn on the house’s windows.
Nick sometimes woke up in bed and couldn’t tell whether it was night or day outside.
She had aged prematurely,
her skin already wrinkling and her hair graying. Nick’s father spent most of his time at work and usually came home
stinking of liquor. He even sometimes blurted something out about whatever new girlfriend he had that week.
In high school, Nick started
drinking himself into near oblivion every night. His father noticed and sent him into counseling, saying that it was too late
for him, but not for Nick.
He met other troubled teens
in group therapy and heard about how some of them had gotten to the point where they no longer wanted to live. Fascinated,
he listened to their stories about tying nooses to hang from or trying to poison themselves.
One night while his parents
fought, he grabbed a razor blade out of the bathroom cabinet and hacked away at his wrists. When he fell against the hard
tiled floor, he remembered smiling before passing out. He woke up in the hospital with his wrists stitched up. His parents
wept at his bedside, promising everything would be better now.
After his recovery, Nick finished
school. He gave up drinking except socially, like when he and Bill met Sheila at a bar four years ago.
Recently, his mortgage company
had piled more and more work on him and he stopped spending as much time with Sheila as he could. He saw her a few times downtown
with another man and began sneaking off to the bars after that. He couldn’t help but start thinking about killing himself.
He always did when he felt down.
Finally, Bill caught him drinking
one night and made him and Sheila have a long talk. They agreed to work things out and the next morning over his coffee Nick
had briefly thought about suicide and laughed at himself. Then he asked Sheila to check the mailbox and met Bill at the back
Sitting in the shade, back
against a stiff tree, something one of his counselors had mentioned suddenly came back to Nick.
Suicide is contagious.
It always made the victim’s
close friends and family curious. Death was the ultimate mystery. Whatever lay behind it couldn’t be worse than the
pressures of work and family, could it?
Nick had only had a stray
thought about suicide this morning, but had it spread from there? Was he responsible for all this?
Somehow, he knew he was.
Biting his lip, he wondered
what he was supposed to do now. What if his old suicidal thoughts kept infecting everyone around him for the rest of his life?
And how could he go on after everything that had already happened?
Part of him shouted that he
had to kill himself before anyone else died because of him. It was the only noble thing to do, and, besides, what sort of
life could he lead from now on without Bill and Sheila?
He crept up the street, ducking
behind trees and cars before anyone caught sight of him. He wouldn’t allow another suicide if he could help it, though
he wasn’t always sure if he had been seen or not. Finally, he returned to his house.
Bracing himself, he stepped
back inside. He avoided looking at the two dead paramedics, but knelt down to kiss Sheila on her cold lips.
He strode into the kitchen
and grabbed a long, sharp knife from out of a drawer. Every Thanksgiving, he had carved the turkey with it. Sitting back at
the kitchen table with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his hand shook as it gripped the knife’s handle.
Again and again, he visualized
slitting his wrists and bleeding to death all over the floor, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
it, he told himself, you’re not sixteen anymore.
He couldn’t just cut
himself and not think about how painful it’d be. Even worse, he couldn’t imagine what waited for him once he reached
the other side. He had caused at least six deaths that he knew of (seven if he counted Mister Mallen). Once he died, Sheila
and Bill wouldn’t be waiting for him at the pearly gates, not when he had an appointment in the boiling pits of hell.
He sobbed. Even with his wife
gone, there was still so much he wanted to do and see in his life.
A police siren wailed and
startled him, making him drop the knife. He ran out to the living floor where he saw two policemen through the front windows
emerging from their squad car.
One of them pushed the front
door open, which the paramedics had already broken in through earlier. Nick turned to dash off, but heard the officer behind
him bark, “Freeze!”
Another set of feet shuffled
inside and Nick heard the second officer gasp and say, “Oh god! These are the missing paramedics?”
“Turn around, sir!”
the first one said.
Nick thought he should run
for it. He couldn’t explain all this to any policeman and he didn’t know what they’d do if he turned around
and looked at them or spoke. But if he ran, the officer might shoot him in the back.
He slowly lifted up his arms.
“Turn around! Slowly!”
Nick froze in place.
A bullet ripped into the floor
next to him. It scared him into jumping back, turning slightly sideways. His eyes met those of the first officer, a sturdy,
The officer then stuck his
handgun in his own mouth and fired. The back of his head exploded and the pieces of his brain scattered all over Sheila and
the two paramedics. Nick screamed.
“Not another one! God,
please, would someone just kill me!”
Just as he began wondering
whether or not he really meant that, he glanced at the second officer, covered in blood and brain matter. He had drawn his
own handgun and aimed it at Nick.
Nick fled back into his kitchen
and slipped on the knife. Stumbling, he regained his balance, but then he felt the bullet tear through his back and saw it
erupt from out of his chest. He tumbled to the floor, wailing, “But I don’t want to die!”
Copyright Michael McNichols
McNichols has a MFA in Fiction-Writing from Columbia College Chicago. My work can be seen in The Banana King,
Worse Than Pulp, and AfterburnSF.